{Guest Post} How to Be an Expert in the Classroom with Brit Bingold

I was given an awesome opportunity to be on Liz Evans’ podcast, Teaching History, Politics, and Stuff, which was a joy and a “taste of my own medicine” as she was on Learning Unlocked in Season 1, Episode 11: “How to Avoid Teacher Burnout and the Comparison Trap.” 

When she came onto the podcast last season and talked with me about the concepts of “burnout” and “comparison” in the teacher realm, it changed the way I thought about my workload and actually after reading her recommended book, The Four Agreements, helped me develop really healthy boundaries. I highly recommend listening to her episode from last season!

She asked me to do an episode on being the expert in the classroom as the teacher. At first, I struggled with this concept as I believe you really are never an expert in the classroom because expert teachers are always learning and growing for and with their students. 

However, when I sat down and thought through her questions, I realized that there are certain key factors that seasoned teachers do that make them more of an expert than a novice teacher; separate them out from “the pack.”

Below is a modified version of our interview together; however, I hope you head over to Liz’s podcast to take a listen to our full conversation as we dive into these topics on a deeper level and also have fun, but still relevant, tangent conversations along the way!

Here is a taste of our interview together:

L: What does it mean to be an expert in your classroom? What does it not mean?

B: I made a chart because that is how my brain was working at that moment! 

It Does Mean  It Does Not Mean
-You recognize your strengths and weaknesses.
-You know WHEN to seek help and aren’t afraid to ask for it. 
-You know how to cultivate your credibility with your students.
-You know how to create a culturally responsive classroom. 
-You know and are able to use research-based high-yield strategies in your instruction (sometimes planned and sometimes “on the fly”).
-You know your content and priority standards.
-You can take anything that you are given and turn it into something that is beneficial for students. 
-You know how to formatively assess your students. 
-You know the importance of cooperative learning (both for students and teachers. 
-You know the importance of self-reflection and self-regulation.
-You know the importance of setting boundaries.
-You are what we call “the sage on the stage.”
-You use the same materials and curriculum year to year.
-You lecture, students listen, and take notes.
-Your students are in rows facing forward, and completing their own individual work.
-Your classroom is “compliant” if there is silence. 
-You take home tons of work to grade.
-You work tons of overtime.
Disregard PD bc you think you already know it or enough.  

L: How do you feel teachers can become more comfortable with being experts in their classrooms when they face so much negativity?

B: It depends on who they are listening to when we discuss ‘negativity’: if we are talking about the media, I would say to just quiet that noise as much as possible and focus on the four walls that you can control: basically what is in your “circle of control’? I have had to personally unfollow a lot of teachers I know and love because they unfortunately put off too much negative energy and I can’t let myself go down that road. Happiness is a habit, it has to be cultivated and practiced for a lot of us in our profession because it is an exhausting profession in a lot of ways.

Now, if the ‘negativity’ is from those they work with regularly or with their leadership on campus, that is a lot harder; however, in those situations what I have found is that being humble and generous goes a long way towards developing positive relationships with coworkers, as well as those in leadership positions. 

To quote Hamilton, sometimes teachers need to, “talk less, smile more” and I will also add “listen carefully,” before making decisions, writing emails, or even in the moment responding to a student or parent. There is great power in taking a short pause to reflect and collect one’s thoughts before responding. I often write emails back to people that I never send but needed to write out so I could feel better (but I know if I sent it, I would be just adding to the negativity pool or even stirring the pot itself). 

I have to read an email or post and walk away, get some perspective, talk with a trusted colleague, etc, before I reply. Even in moments where a student would, or as it is now my own children, say something negative and all I want to do is snap back, that slight pause I have had to practice taking helps me “turn down the Jaws music in my head” and be able to respond a bit clearer and kinder. 

A lot of social and professional interactions in our society have shifted from being face-to-face to being behind-a-screen and with that comes so many mis-read tones or lines taken out of the intended context. 

Teachers are faced with negativity from many different avenues, but here is my thing: IF they went into teaching to inspire learning while knowing full well that they would also have to undertake the physical, emotional, and social well-being of their students as well, they know that all of those components of teaching are far more important than the “noises of negativity”. 

Expert teachers set boundaries, block out “negative noise”, become solid in instruction strategies and pedagogy (not just their content), take time to reflect, and build in non-negotiable time to take of themselves (in whatever way works for them). 

I think students, principals, and parents expect a teacher to be completely comfortable and solid in their content; however, if a teacher wants to feel the most comfortable, dare I say confident as a teacher, they need to have a strong backbone of instructional strategies and a soft heart towards those they interact with, especially their students. 

This is where I have found that delicate balance in my work life. 

L: Let’s talk about taking risks. How does having an environment that allows you to take risks and become more of an expert?

B: First off, I am not really a “risk taker” in my personal life (unless we are talking about clothes or hair but I am not jumping out of a plane or anything like that); however, I do it all the time in my professional life! 

Which is really strange now that I am thinking about this question. I will learn something new and take the risk because in education I feel it is always worth it. A lot of what we do, we do because, “it is the way it has always been done,” and I just want to call BS on that statement right now. 

Just because we have always taught Romeo and Juliet or fractions, or the life cycle of a pumpkin (over and over and over) a certain way year after year, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change it up, add or take away from it, make it more relevant, or heck just throw out the whole thing all together if it doesn’t make sense or “work” for the students we have now in 2021. 

And that is why it is so important that you create a culturally responsive environment and have support from others in order to make those decisions as a teacher and team. If the students can “Google it”, why are we memorizing it? I am not saying memorization isn’t sometimes valid, but we have to really ask ourselves WHY?

I changed my units every year, sometimes by the week or day depending on the students I had in front of me, that year, or that moment. I think for many teachers, taking a risk wouldn’t be trying out a new tech tool necessarily (they had to do that real-quick this last year) but it would be more like not planning out a whole unit day by day for the entire quarter and sticking to it come hell or high water. 

I think that the hardest shift in education right now is that teachers need to “skelton-plan” instead and just stay a few days ahead of the kids while still keeping their and the kids eyes on target (their priority standards, learning targets, and success criteria) and guiding them to their end performance task. 

That is hard to feel like you can pull off with every minute detail teachers are thrown into everyday. However, if the students are learning the curriculum more organically using active learning experiences in class and getting feedback as their needs arise via informal formative assessments, I believe we would see growth in our students’ knowledge and motivation. 

I think every principal or evaluator I have ever had has always seen me as organized and efficient in my classroom, so when I took risks with technology or flexible seating, or curriculum pacing, they would just let me go and try it because they knew me well enough to know that I would reflect on my practices and adjust what needs to be adjusted or tweaked until “the risk” became what it needed to be for the benefit and welfare of students and the overall learning environment.

I believe expert teachers are willing to take risks because they are unafraid to model failure. 

Expert teachers believe failure is just as much a part of learning itself as whatever lesson they had planned that day. Expert teachers convey this belief to their students as well. It is okay to fail when we are learning something new or when we are trying to recall something we learned in the past or when we experiment with modifying a lesson that last year just didn’t help students grow or hit the target. 

I also believe students see teachers as an expert even more if they are willing to take some risks in the classroom because the students themselves are taking mini-risks everyday in their own learning. 

It is so beneficial for students to see a teacher as someone who is also continuously learning, being inventive, and trying new things (and is transparent and vulnerable about it); you end up becoming the model for your students of what it is like to be a continuous learner.

In the end, we want students who look forward to a teacher’s class not just because the teacher is “easy” or “funny” but because they are going to learn in a way that is clear to them, but also holds creativity and innovation (and risks) along the way. 

L: Anything else you want to make sure is said?

B: Being an expert teacher is hard, exhausting work, but so is being a novice teacher and frankly so is being a crappy teacher, so why not be an “expert”?! 

It is just how you view the work. I would go home at the end of the day totally tired but totally happy because my students and I had a great day of learning and growing together. I always said to my husband that it was “good tired”.  

I usually would drive home in silence as a way to calm my mind and adjust from “teacher me” to “wife/mom me”. 

We have to be careful though that in trying to be an expert teacher we don’t end up burning out, because that is far too easy to do. Find a balance that works for you, find people who lift you up and are willing to collaborate to make the load lighter, walk away from school at a decent time.

I learned from Liz when she was on my podcast to turn my school email off of my phone and put boundaries around my own personal time and health and it has been huge for me this semester. Nothing is more important than your health and time with yourself and those you love (as I think we have all learned this year).

An expert teacher can fine-tune their work and life balance that is when teaching is truly a beautiful career. I can’t tell you the pure joy I feel when a former student writes or messages me, or heck now they are becoming teachers themselves and are in our New Hire Mentor Program, and they remember something I taught them, but mostly, and this is what makes me jump up and down, how I made them feel. That is a lovely way to fill your “teacher cup”. 

Lastly, just remember that you don’t have to know everything to be an expert teacher, you just have to be humble enough to know this and passionate enough to keep learning for the love of education and your students. 

About the author: Brit is an instructional specialist who aspires to inspire every day; she loves learning new research-based instructional strategies to share with teachers. She also is a wife, mother of two kids and two dogs, and has two chronic illnesses. As a former high school English teacher, she loves to write when she can on her blog, thebitsofbrit.com. She also enjoys binge-watching with her favorite shows being Call the Midwife, Outlander, and The West Wing.

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